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I’m A Teacher. This Is What Teaching During The Pandemic Has Taught Me.

“Finding ways to connect with children during their time in school is one of the most important aspects of my job. Finding ways to connect with children when neither they nor I am in school anymore — this is the hardest job I’ve ever done.”

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I spend a lot of time missing faces. Instead, I stare at a laptop waiting for emails to arrive, for kids’ smiles to pop up on my screen, for weekly video conferences with colleagues who only a month ago I ate lunch with everyday.

One month ago, I can’t tell you how many times a day I told my students, “You need to put your cell phones away. Is this the first day of school, people?”  If I had a nickel for every kid who asked to go to the bathroom two minutes after the bell rang, I could’ve retired to Boca, twice. Beyond scolding them, watching children walk into my classroom with a simultaneous desire to learn everything and nothing has been my happy norm for the last two decades. Inside these walls, my students have given my life meaning, and I’ve always aimed to do the same for them.

Teachers are an interesting mix of several professions wrapped into one. We’re part mentor, parent, therapist, good cop, bad cop, baker, doctor, entertainer, housekeeper and contortionist. Even with all of these titles embedded into our job description, I can’t think of one of my colleagues who would have it any other way. Teachers know that what we do is 50% curriculum and 100% caring about kids.  

Sure, there are days when we can’t wait to close our classroom doors and reach the safe haven of the teacher’s lounge for twenty uninterrupted, childfree minutes (everyday). There are times when we’re quite certain that working photocopiers are like majestic unicorns — we’ve never seen them, but we hear they exist. We know the value of a two-minute bathroom break, a fifteen-minute snack and a forty-minute prep period. More than anything, we know that we’re on the frontlines of raising, teaching and loving America’s youth, and we’re grateful for the privilege. 

Back in the beginning of March, before the fear of COVID-19 was widespread, I woke, brewed my first cup of coffee and read the state and national news. The escalating death tolls in China, Italy, Iran and South Korea scared me, and I wondered what would happen if the disease came here. Surely, America was more prepared. In fact, weren’t we ranked first in the world for Global Pandemic Preparedness? 

The idea that my family, friends, colleagues and students were already at risk of contracting COVID-19 never entered into my consciousness.  

Less than two weeks later on Friday March 13, my principal called us all to the library after school for an emergency staff meeting. He told us that the professional development day our district had planned for the following Friday had been bumped to Tuesday, a mere three days away. This in-service had been intended as a work day, so teachers could put together two weeks of “stand alone plans” for students in the event that school was forced to shut down. 

He said, “This is an unprecedented situation, one in which we will all have more questions than answers. I can’t give those answers to you now. All I can do is tell you to get ready because this message could change at any time.”  

I went home for two hours and then went back to school. My daughter had a driver’s ed class in the room beneath mine, and wouldn’t it be smart to spend some time cleaning my classroom? I organized file folders I’d been meaning to put away since Christmas, arranged corrected student work into neater piles and attempted to find the surface of my desk underneath years of knick-knacks, student photos and empty sugar packets. 

Sadly, all of my stress-cleaning couldn’t quiet the nagging fear in the back of my mind. What if we didn’t have until Tuesday?

I went back the next morning and found a desk calendar I’d purchased years ago when I still believed I was the kind of person who might use a desk calendar. I looked at my syllabi, counted out pages in books, numbered writing assignments, uploaded documents to our school website and used that geometric desk wonder to plan the next five weeks of my life. That night, I photographed my second sunset while cry-running laps around the parking lot of our school.  

COURTESY OF EMILY MORRISON The sunset from my classroom while preparing packets of student work for remote learning. 

The next afternoon, on Sunday March 15, we received an email from our superintendent that all district schools would be closed beginning March 17 for the next two weeks. We would have school tomorrow for students to gather their personal property and get information regarding remote learning. Our superintendent knew that attendance would be low, but at least we could give the majority of our students work before the two-week shutdown.  

Four days later on March 19, the governor of Maine announced a state of civil emergency. All Maine schools would cease classroom-based instruction for the next 30 days.  

In some respects, this time away from school would appear to be every student’s (and teacher’s) wildest dream come true. We can stay up late and sleep in if we so choose (and why wouldn’t we so choose)? We can watch Youtube and Netflix whenever we want, scroll through social media posts like it’s our day job, and stare endlessly at screens without anyone saying, “It’s time to put that away. You have work to do.”  

But then, there is the other side of this dream to consider, the nightmare. We wake up and each day is the same as the day that came before. Night clothes and day clothes are the same clothes. We have the nagging sense that there is work to be done, but when, oh when, should we do it? And how will we ever manage it all? Did I really think we could finish a six-hundred page novel in a month? Who assigns daily journal writing during a pandemic? Is this really the right time for my seniors to read The Bell Jar?

My 75 juniors have written 15, count them, 350-word journal entries since the shutdown began. This means that I have read over 393,750 words about video games, trucks, cheerleading, breakups, football, summer jobs, college, family, food, career plans and how much online school “sucks the big one” in the last three weeks. 

Through the miracle of Google Hangouts, I have watched Ethan bake cookies, cake and something resembling a giant cinnamon roll. I’ve seen Chase saute onions and put them in his roast beef sandwich. I’ve been introduced to Nigel and Sophie, Zoe’s remarkably English sounding dogs. I’ve counseled Carter through his boredom and helped him download his math (though I’m his English teacher). Much to my surprise, I’ve even compared Aden’s cowlick (who’s notoriously private about his hair) to my own celebrity bedhead. He won. 

Splitting the atom, I am not. 

What I am trying to do is find another way in, a way to connect with kids other than assigning them homework through mail or email and hassling their parents (who don’t need one more hassle right now).  

Most days, I find that I’ve fallen into the same rhythm I had before life as we knew it disappeared. I’m up by seven, reading the news until eight, then reading student work until noon. Office hours are from twelve to two, one more hour of reading journals until three, and then I’m out the door for my daily run. It’s funny how during times of abnormality, I’ve found that what my students, coworkers and I all crave is the very normalcy we never thought we’d miss.   

Teachers and students are very much creatures of routine. Is this really a surprise? Who else could live five days a week listening to bells ring every forty minutes and not lose their mind? We’re a bit Pavlovian that way. We eat at the same time, attend each class at the same time, work, sing, play instruments, exercise, extracurricular-ise and go home. There’s something eternally reassuring about the monotony of it all, that by our very ennui we take comfort in knowing that day-in and day-out nothing will change. The irony is, of course, we’re all changing. Students are growing in every way imaginable, and teachers are growing too (only older it seems).   

I’d like to believe that I’m the kind of teacher who helps kids grow, who sees their potential and their weaknesses and loves them for who they are, not just who they’ll become. Every morning when I come running to open my classroom, I see the theater kids (who are also the band kids) sitting in a circle in the hallway outside my room. They hold my coffee so I can open the door, flick on our fluorescent lights and turn on the salt lamp. Kami wishes she had more time to paint my wall mural before the bell. Olvia and Grayson talk about last night’s play rehearsal, and the girls in the corner want to know if it’s okay if they use the bathroom to finish their makeup. 

I’ve seen these children every morning for the last four years of their lives, and I don’t know when I will see them again. 

I may never get to tell Aden to take off his hat and put his cell phone away again. I might never get to high-five Christian after he gets done reading our school’s morning announcements again. I won’t be able to hug Charlie and tell him one more time, “Hugs not drugs, Charlie. School is dope!” while he smiles and laughs at me with his energy drink hoisted in the air. Knowing that I will not get to watch the freshmen who walked into my heart four years ago walk across our stage as seniors to receive their diplomas hurts in a way I have no words to express. 

My mornings now are more subdued. I open up a laptop and look at ever expanding circles on maps. I measure increases in death tolls of states near and far from Maine. I used to wish I had more time to sit and read the news, to drink one more cup of coffee. Now I miss the days when I knew less. 

I’ve found that as long as I’m still able to read their writing, as long as I can email them or call them if they’re without internet, if I can find a way to talk to them, then I still feel like I’m their teacher. I ask them how they’re sleeping or if they’re sleeping. I want to know what they’re doing and is any of it, by chance, my homework? How is the family? Is everyone well? Do you know about the school’s food program? Do you know we deliver? Are you good? Is everybody still good? Sometimes I fear the answers to these questions because I myself have no solutions for lack of sleep, lack of motivation, lack of food or lack of money.  

COURTESY OF EMILY MORRISON What remote teaching looks like on a good day.

How can I solve the many stressors that plague them? 

I can’t. But I can continue to be a voice of care and encouragement in my students’ lives. I can share with them what I do to keep myself sane (exercise and eat chocolate) and I can love my own babies, now in their tweens. We can turn the news off and take a vote on which Harry Potter movie we should watch tonight.  We can stay home together, cook together and eat together like we used to before soccer, drama, basketball and track took over our lives. Some nights we succumb to our separate screens and sit in our own little isolation bubbles, but most nights, my husband (a man of unending good cheer) finds a way to pull us all back together again.

If someone had asked me, “What is the hardest part of teaching during a pandemic?” I would’ve initially said, “Learning the technology.” For someone who thinks a projector is tricky business, figuring out how to use Google Classroom, establishing a Google Hangout and learning how to scan documents into a photocopier almost bankrupted my brain cells. But truly, the sharp learning curve that helped me switch from daily, in-person instruction to daily, online instruction wasn’t as steep as I thought it would be. 

The hardest part of remote teaching through a pandemic is actually just like it sounds. It’s the remoteness. It’s being away from children. 

I miss their teenage angst. I miss the melodrama of who’s broken up with who and who needs a box of tissues. Whether they walk in with a fresh new cut or the victim of a bad hair day, there’s something so invigorating about being in the presence of youth. I’ve learned that “lit” doesn’t mean literature and “dope” doesn’t mean dope. There’s a lexicon of teen-speak that’s entirely the same and entirely different every year. I keep hoping, “That’s so rad,” will make a comeback, but besides Cameron Diaz’s baby girl, Raddix (Rad for short), I don’t think this one’s coming back. 

As a teacher, I get to borrow my students’ youth, and they get to borrow my wisdom. It’s an even trade. When they are struggling, they can talk to me. When I’m having a hard day, they can show me a TikTok. Sometimes, they just stop talking and pretend to work, and that in itself is a gift. I love my students, and this virus has made it very hard for me to show that love in all the ways I normally do: bringing in donuts, hugging them, telling long, tangential stories about my college days, breaking out into spontaneous song and occasionally spontaneous dance. 

Back when I was a student myself, I often thought I could never teach. I wasn’t as smart as my English teacher or as stern as my math instructor. I didn’t know much about earth science and all of those different stages of rock. I had a hard time staying awake in history class, and I never wanted to read anything academic in my spare time. My face was either buried in a Harlequin or two feet from a television screen. Other than journaling in my cat diary every night, I had no clue what I was good at. 

Until one day near the end of my high school career, I happened to be outside during some sort of community service project with other seniors. My English teacher of three years walked up to me, and we had a conversation about what I wanted to do after high school. I told her, “I may go into acting, but I kinda like writing, too. I really don’t know.” 

She looked at me and said, “Emily, you’re one of the most talented and least recognized students I know. I think you can do anything you want to do.” 

And then she hugged me.

Ms. Krauss was my whole world. She was someone I wanted to impress, someone who I looked up to both then and now. In that moment, her belief and affection for me literally changed the way I saw myself, and in many respects, changed the way my life played out. Because she believed in me, I believed in me. I am who I am today because Ms. Krauss gave me two unasked-for minutes of her time. 

This is why every minute with children counts, and why after three weeks apart, I feel like so many of these conversations have been missed. Being able to talk with my seniors about what they’re good at, about who they are as people, these are the moments that I live for as an educator because I know how much they meant to me as a student.   

Does this mean the course of their lives will be different now because they’ve missed this time with their peers and their teachers? Of course, it does. Do I know how their lives will be different or what each one of them will take away from this time outside of our immediate reach? No, I don’t. Who can tell what ripples, waves and tsunamis this pandemic will leave in its wake for those fortunate enough to survive it? 

Three weeks ago tonight I went to bed for the first time without going into school the following morning. There was a tight, unsettling feeling in my chest then, and it’s the same tight, unsettling feeling I have now as I write this. How does one get back time they’ve lost? How do I reassure my students that even though we may not be in the same place, we’re still together in spirit? The grades are easy. The work is a relief. The emails keep coming. It’s the interaction I mourn. Standing up for the pledge, sitting down for the bell, taking out our books together and looking out the window as the seagulls swarm the dumpster in the back parking lot.

It’s the little things you miss when your life gets rearranged. But it’s those same things you appreciate when it gets put back together again, and I can’t wait to appreciate the everloving angst out of my students.  

Because in the end, that’s what this time has taught us all.

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